Hwy 280 Among CA's Worst for Wildlife Collisions

But an 8-foot fence could dramatically reduce deer strikes on Highway 280, one of California's deadliest stretches for wildlife-vehicle collisions, a study finds.

by Christian Yungert

Jan. 12, 2016—Welcome to the Bay Area! Our roads feature two things, and they go hand in hand: heavy traffic and roadkill. We’ve got millions of people driving from home to work and back again. We’ve got heaps of wildlife just trying to do the same, except they don’t have an HOV lane, let alone a crosswalk. Local roadways, like real-life Frogger, are a death trap for animals, and I-280 has been labeled among California’s deadliest.

In 2013, Dr. Fraser Shilling, co-director of the UC Davis Road Ecology Center, completed the two-year-long I-280 Wildlife Movement and Connectivity study, which examined deer and animal movement across I-280 for 22 miles parallel to the Crystal Springs Reservoir. Shilling’s team discovered two things: 44 deer cause accidents every year on this stretch; and during the 16-month study, 1,341 deer safely crossed using existing bridges and culverts.

There are implications here for deer lovers and loathers alike. Each deer collision averages $6,671 in vehicle damages and medical expenses—if the driver is lucky. Things can turn tragic. In 2011, Daniel Strickland, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Santa Clara University, died after a deer collision. On the positive side, more than 1300 deer used existing crossings, resulting in $6.7 million saved annually (or at least not spent at the hospital or repair shop). And this is for a 22-mile stretch of interstate; imagine extrapolating the numbers statewide.

Shilling’s conclusion: existing structures like bridges and culverts work as safe passageways for wildlife, but we need more fences to guide these animals toward them. According to the study, it would cost $20,000 per mile to upgrade an existing six-foot chain link fence to eight feet and $100,000 per mile to build it brand new. In areas with high rates of animal collisions, the number of accidents avoided could pay for the fencing in three to five years.

“You have a sterile, dangerous place — the roadway,” Shilling says. “You don’t want to attract animals there.”

Shilling is calling for swift action from Caltrans on the fences. In December he issued a statement reiterating that it’s been over two years since completion of the study and designation of 280 as the most dangerous highway in California for wildlife-vehicle collisions, and Caltrans has done nothing. The Road Ecology Center still monitors I-280. “If Caltrans or local transportation agencies ever wanted to reduce harm to people and wildlife on I-280 they would know what to do and where to do it,” says Shilling.

A group called 280connect has launched a petition seeking action from Caltrans on the issue.

The other worst offenders in the state are Interstate 5, Highway 101 through the redwoods, Highway 50 in the Sierras and Highway 17, which runs between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos.

A Wildlife Crossing for Highway 17

Wildlife crossings are getting attention elsewhere in the Bay Area. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, having long recognized the dangers of Highway 17 to drivers and wildlife alike, are closing in on their own wildlife crossing, the first in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Planned for Highway 17’s Laurel Curve, the Land Trust labels the wildlife crossing its most complex project yet. It will preserve a total of 470 acres on both sides of the curve, a place scientists have deemed not only the best location but one of frequent attempted crossings. Since monitoring began by the Santa Cruz Puma Project in 2008, three mountain lions have been documented successfully navigating their way across the highway seven times. In the same time frame, cars have hit four mountain lions crossing the curve, killing three. Freedom of movement across habitat, especially for territorial males, is critical for successful hunting and maintaining a genetically healthy population.

Read Why Does The Puma Cross The Road?

The suggested crossing will be a 10x20-foot box culvert with dirt flooring underneath the highway. This should be enough to encourage use by all animals looking for safe passage. Light is shining at the end of this tunnel as the Land Trust nears the completion of its goals.

The last hurdles to clear before construction can begin are the purchase of 190 acres immediately west of Laurel Curve and placement of a conservation easement on the property to ward off future development, all by June 2016. The non-profit is spearheading a project usually undertaken by government agencies. Construction could begin as early as 2019.

Until the end of January 2016, two anonymous donors will match all donations to the Land Trust’s Great No Limits Campaign. With over $2 million already raised, the Land Trust is hoping donations continue to flow in.

For information on how to donate to the wildlife crossing on Highway 17, visit the Land Trust website.